Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Gabrielle steals the show

By Megan Jones

Gabrielle Marion-Rivard doesn’t enter a room. She arrives. Underneath her thick mop of curly brown hair the actress’s eyes and her smile widen. She radiates.

“It’s her magical light,” says Canadian film director Louise Archambault. “She has that presence on screen and that magic in her eyes. It’s rare.”

The two women met several years ago at
Les Muses in Montreal, an organization that offers performing arts classes to people with disabilities. At the time, Gabrielle was a student and Louise was researching a film she’d written about a young woman with a disability entering adulthood.

Gabrielle has Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder associated with intellectual disability, heart problems and certain facial features. Those with Williams syndrome are often also extremely sociable, with an affinity for language and music. Gabrielle is no exception.

She eventually secured the lead role in Louise’s film—
Gabriellewhich Louise named after her and released in 2013.

In it, she plays a young woman with Williams syndrome by the same name who is also a talented singer. Her character joins a recreational choir for adults with disabilities, where she meets, falls for, and starts dating another choir member, Martin—played by Alexandre Landry, who doesn’t have a disability in real life. On-screen, the two are inseparable, but as a result of their disabilities, their families are skeptical and cautious about their romance. Gabrielle is the story of a young woman with a disability fighting for independence, and the challenges and prejudices she faces. This year, the film won two Canadian screen awards for Best Film and Best Actress.

While Louise says the choice to cast Gabrielle in the title role was clear in hindsight, when they first met neither of them was sure if she could handle the part. Gabrielle had trained as a singer, not an actress. But the two were determined, and worked together for nearly a year in acting and improvisation workshops.

“The producers and I came to the conclusion that a professional actress probably wouldn’t have the same authenticity and spontaneity,” Louise says. “The role was hers.”

Gabrielle says she still remembers the day she got the part. “One day Louise called my house and asked me if I wanted to be in her film,” she says. “I was so very happy, so very excited. I said, ‘Hooray!’”

Louise had already written her script when she first attended Les Muses, but her experiences with Gabrielle and other students at Les Muses inspired her to rewrite parts. She also hired a number of actors with disabilities she met there.

On many occasions, Louise says the cast defied her preconceptions. During shooting, for example, a personal support worker was hired to help out on set in the event that any of the actors with disabilities became stressed or agitated. Louise says that while the first three days were challenging, once a routine was established, filming went smoothly. At one point a few weeks in, the support worker approached Louise and asked if she could go home. There was nothing to do and she was bored. 

The director says that working with a cast of actors with disabilities taught her to reimagine her expectations and think on her feet.

“I accepted that neither their acting nor their approach to the work was going to be perfect,” she says. “I had to let go so that the truth of their actions and reactions could surface.” 

At the same time, the actors presented some challenges that Louise wasn’t used to, she says, and she learned to adapt her set accordingly. Many cast members, for example, wanted to look directly into the camera—which gives footage an unrealistic feel when it’s played back. Rather than insist that the actors look away, the crew moved the cameras around frequently and captured long takes of each scene so they could pull the best material during editing. 

Louise also took advantage of spontaneity. “If there were two characters off in their own world whispering, that was something special. I would try to grab that for the film,” she says.

For Gabrielle, the challenges were different. The hardest part of filming?

Oh my gosh. The love scenes,” she says.

“I’d never actually been in love in real life. I’d never actually been to a sex-ed class. I didn’t even know what a sex-ed class was!”

Sometimes she also had trouble with coordination on set. The scenes that required her to pick up objects in a certain order had to be shot multiple times. As she practised though, her coordination improved.

Gabrielle says that playing the lead role in the film taught her that she has a lot more autonomy than she imagined. She says this realization helped to boost her self-esteem. “I learned to accept my syndrome,” she says. “Before, I didn’t. But I learned that I’m capable of acting in a film that I was really proud of.”   

Today, the actress hopes to live in her own apartment eventually, like her character did. But for now, she continues at home with her mom.

For Gabrielle, working with other actors with disabilities was important, and she’s glad that Louise chose to cast those with real disabilities in as many roles as possible.

“They really understand the challenges their characters will face,” Gabrielle says. “And also it shows people what I can do despite my disability.” 

The actress hopes that the authenticity of the movie will remind a wide audience that young adults with disabilities also have goals and dreams, and that they are striving for love and independence, just like anyone else.

In particular, she encourages the parents of kids with disabilities who watch the film to keep these things in mind as their children transition into adulthood.

“They need to accept their children and encourage them to accomplish their dreams,” she says. “Let go. Believe in us.”